Set during a period of social and political transition, 'Temptress Moon' starts in 1911 before the fall of the Qing dynasty and the resignation of Emporer Pu Yi (an event that is soon mentioned). The wealthy and important Pang family is fated for a similar decline - it's downfall to be caused by opium, the drug which all it's heads become addicted to (there's an ominous opening scene where Ruyi, as a child, smiles upon inhaling in). This corrupt family - witness Zhengda's demands of Zhongliang to kiss his own sister in an incestuous fashion, destined towards self-destruction and tragedy sows the seeds of its own fall, and has been argued to reflect the corruption of Communist China, echoing the ambiguous nature of Chen Kaige's previous films. At this point in 1911, the three children in the house, Ru Yi (the master's sister), Duanwu (her cousin) and Zhongliang (her cousin through marriage) will determine the family's fate - note the knowing scene where all three meet and look into the camera as if to declare their importance to the viewer.
At this point, when the film rushes into the 1920s and the three are now adults, the film lurches into more melodramatic terrain with tragedy never far from the horizon. Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung), now a blackmailer and gigolo working for a local crime syndicate has constructed a cool and emotionless persona after the trauma of his forced incest as a boy - he can never love again. Under the pseudonym Xiao Xie, he seduces rich women whilst his cohorts extort money through contrived kidnappings. When one woman is told Xiao Xie is dead, maybe that's a reflection on the changing identity of Zhongliang; that his identity isn't real, that he's not who he really is. Ru Yi (Gong Li) on the other hand has ascended to the leadership of the family after Zhengda was poisoned (no guesses by whom), a move which has caused internal strife within a family still bound by the traditions of a patriarchal society. Duanwu (Kevin Lin) is used by the family elders to keep an eye on her because he has no ambitions of his own, but this superficially dim-witted young man is smarter than he looks. Their fates are all destined to be entwined and because of such, the inevitable tragedy ensues after Zhongliang returns to the estate with the intention of seducing Ru Yi - the masks and personas these people wear begin to slip and the dynamics in the relationships between them begin to shift in ways you hadn't expected. As the film reaches its climax, it becomes more over-elaborate and melodramatic but you suspect (and Silbergeld agrees) that this is precisely the point - that it acts as a commentary on melodrama generally as much as it does itself.
Thanks to the photography of Christopher Doyle, 'Temptress Moon' is a visual feast with brilliant use of lighting - it seems very old fashioned but of course precisely of its own time (1920s) to focus an intense strip of light in the eyes of the actor. Chen Kaige uses a number of close ups on the faces of his actors generally, possibly to reflect the possible slip in their facades. Doyle's camera follows his protagonists wherever they go with a great amount of urgency; it's rarely still. More visual brilliance is shown in the sex scenes which are choreographed in a very dreamlike light. But 'Temptress Moon' is a film of substance too. Much like 'Raise The Red Lantern' and other films of the Fifth Generation era, it uses the past as a means of critiquing the present - the Pang family is a rigid and patriarchal society which is resistant to change but also quite vulnerable at the same time. The rise of Duanwu from nowhere to the head of the Pang dynasty has been said to echo the unexpected ascendancy of many Communist officials, Jiang Zemin specifically. Many critics remain ambivalent about the film probably because of its confusing narrative - when Miramax released the film, they added prologues to "help" the viewer. I've not seen a version distributed by Miramax and I don't think they're necessary anyway. Chen Kaige has not remotely approached these heights since, which is a shame because his opening run of films are wonderful. Now he's been co-opted into the Chinese film establishment, who knows whether he will again? 4.5/5